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Wild At Heart - Mesopotamia exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum

Wild Bill Ketelhut provides the "blog" to this anti-blog

Wild At Heart

On my most recent trip to Toronto, I took in the current exhibit "Mesopotamia" at the Royal Ontario Museum and got to talk to Associate Curator Clemens Reichel who gave me so much good information I don't know what else to add. The Royal Ontario Museum's big exhibitions are always top class and this is no exception. They are always spacious, well laid out and take advantage of current technologies to bring forward an amazing museum experience. This exhibit, like so many will showcase items that you just cannot see anywhere else and makes a trip well worth it. That said, let's get on with the interview about this excellent exhibit of ancient culture.

1) Starting off, how did the idea for doing an exhibit about Mesopotamia come about?

It's probably the hope of every curator to stage an exhibit in his area of expertise. In my case, this plan goes back to late 2008, when I started working at the University of Toronto and the ROM. My own ideas of a Mesopotamia exhibit were different. I would have liked to build it around the ROM's own sizeable collection of Mesopotamian artifacts and augmented it with a larger pool of loans from Europe and North America. But you can't always get exactly what you want. The opportunity of partnering up with the British Museum, home to one of the largest Mesopotamian collections in the world, provided a solid starting point. Negotiations with the two museums started in spring 2011, and the contract itself was signed in July 2012. Considering that we opened the exhibit in June 2013 this is a pretty fast turnaround!

The exhibit first went to Melbourne and Hongkong. For the Toronto venue, however, we retooled it significantly. We also added a considerable number of iconic artifacts from other North American collections (including the ROM). And I believe that it is fair to say that our expert exhibit planners and designers developed the “feel” of this exhibit that received so much praise from reviewers and the public.

2) Most of the objects came from the British Museum who worked with the art world in Iraq.  How much have things changed with that relationship from when the collection started to the present day, esp considering the increased destruction of art objects in Iraq?  Does Iraq want historical items back or is there a fear that having those items in their country will be subject to loss as showcased by the sister exhibit "Catastrophe!"?

Some tough questions, but I am happy to address them. The term "Mesopotamia" is not without problems. It's a geographic designation assigned by Greek scholars during the Hellenistic period, literally meaning "(land) between the rivers." There never was a state called Mesopotamia. Throughout time, people in this area might have identified as Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Amorites, but there was no Mesopotamian identity. In modern times, the use of this term unfortunately continues to dissociate the ancient cultures from the modern-day countries in this area. Although Mesopotamia extends into Syria and southern Turkey, most of the significant sites of Sumer, Assyria and Babylonia are located in Iraq. And I feel strongly that we need to emphasize this--our exhibit shows the culture and civilizations of ancient Iraq!

As we are highlighting in "Catastrophe", our companion exhibit to "Mesopotamia," the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003 resulted in the loss of thousands of artifacts. Even that, however, was a drop in the bucket compared to the destruction of countless archaeological sites by looters in search for more artifacts. The looting was so thorough that many of the famous sites now look like Swiss cheese from the air. These destructions resulted in a tremendous loss of data. Looters and their middlemen are not driven by scientific but by monetary interest. Only artifacts that can be sold on the art market will be collected while broken items, pottery, scientific samples--all of which could tell us a lot about these ancient civilizations--are being discarded. There is a lot that we will never be able to learn about ancient Mesopotamia. In the past few years Iraq has tried reclaim some of these items, but this is an arduous way since it is very difficult to prove that an artifact has been dug up recently.

  Would I be interested in acquiring any of these artifacts for the ROM? Affirmatively no! Leaving aside the fact that they were exported illegally, which makes their acquisition illegal to begin with, they have no scientific value without archaeological context. Stolen artifacts need to be returned to Iraq, but even more importantly, we need to help the Iraqi government in its ongoing efforts to curb the looting of archaeological sites. The heritage that we are losing through looting, ultimately, is our own.

  What about the pieces in our "Mesopotamia" exhibit then? Almost all of them come from excavations that were undertaken in the 19th and earlier 20th century. Following World War I, the state of Iraq instituted laws that required a find division after the end of an excavation between the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and the expedition. For example, half of the finds from the Royal Cemetery of Ur--some of the highlights of our Mesopotamia exhibit--are in the Iraq Museum. The other half went to the expedition--a joint venture between the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum, so both of these museums were allocated about 25% of these artifacts. This explains why most of the Ur artifacts (gold cups, necklaces, earrings etc) in the exhibit come from the British Museum, while two of the highlights (the so called Ram in a Thicket, soon to be exchanged for another one--the so-called Great Lyre) were borrowed from the Penn Museum.

  Iraq's laws have changed since these excavations--today such a division would no longer happen. But I feel that it is important to point out that these items were exported legally. Moreover, they were excavated carefully--for all their gold and splendor they are primary archaeological artifacts that relate amazing information about kings and kingship in ancient Mesopotamia.

3) Does what is happening in Syria today for example create further stress for art lovers and preservationists?

  No kidding. We have seen how bad things got in Iraq--but most of the looting happened after the war, during the occupation by Coalition Forces. In Syria, by contrast, we are seeing ongoing warfare. The damage so already been significant, and yet there is no saying how bad it will get. Much of northern and central Syria is dotted with the same type of mounds that you find in Iraq--those are highly susceptible to looting in the absence of any government control. Sites in the western part of the country, on the other hand, face a different threat. This is where many of Syria's famous world heritage sites, such as Palmyra, are located. With their graceful colonnaded streets, temples and theaters they used to be major tourist attractions, but now they face immanent danger through combat. Some sites have already been shelled and suffered severe damage. The probably worst destruction that happened so far is the burning of the old city of Aleppo with its scenic bazaars and workshops. Its Umayyad mosque, one of the most significant examples of early Islamic architecture, has been severely damaged, and last year its famous minaret collapsed after being shelled.

For someone like me who has worked in Syria for twenty years the current events are just heartbreaking to watch. My own site, which is located close to the Iraqi border, may be comparatively safe from warfare (although not immune to looting). Make no mistake--I am not valuing sites or artifacts more than human lives--too many friends and colleagues have been personally affected. The looting and destruction of cultural heritage, however, it much more than a material loss—in losing our history and heritage we lose our own identity.

4) I see that there is a Detroit connection with the exhibit.  What items from the DIA helped augment this exhibit?

 Yes indeed, and I am very glad that this loan was possible [as a side note, let me express my deep concerns and strong support for the DIA in light of Detroit's current budget crisis and recent calls to sell this magnificent collection--a terrible, inconceivable thought!]. The item is a small statue, identified by its Sumerian inscription as Gudea, who around 2150 BC ruled a city-state called Lagash close to the shore of the Persian Gulf. Numerous other statues of this ruler were found--all of them carved in a blocky, static fashion that literally defines a "Gudea style." Not so the DIA's Gudea! Made of an exquisite greenish stone (paragonite) his posture is very dynamic--we like to say that he has a swagger in his hips--and details such as his hands or wrinkles in his garment are carved in a breathtakingly naturalistic fashion. What this piece shows, in a nutshell, is a hybrid between two artistic traditions. The posture of this figure, which presumably had been placed in a temple before a deity, shows a new way in which rulers were displayed while the craftsmanship itself, notably the naturalism in his portrayal, reflects an earlier, much more naturalistic tradition. The general public won't worry about such academic musings but no worries--this statue can be appreciated just for its beauty and craftsmanship. It is beautifully displayed in its own cube--a true highlight of the exhibit!

5) Egypt, with it's Pyramids and mummies, has long been a popular fixture for museums but Mesopotamia, while not as captivating, has had a bigger influence on the growth of civilization.  How important was this area to modern civilization?

It's easy to rattle down a list of Mesopotamian achievements (especially if we sites from Syria and Eastern Turkey in this list) that still affect us today: agriculture, domestication of animals, first cities, writing, the earliest known recordings in astronomy, mathematics, medicine, the first literary masterpieces, and so on. I think that is very important to recognize how much western civilization owes to the cultures of the ancient Near East. At the same time, I have to warn against oversimplification: writing was invented in Mesopotamia, but it wasn't only invented there. What Mesopotamia offers is a wonderful test case for the primary development of a society. What we learn from studying Mesopotamia can be compared to and contrasted with other civilizations that developed completely independently from the Near East, such as China or the Mayan world.

Royal Ontario Museum - Striding Lion Relief photo BabylonROM2013_13462_23crop-lion_zpseaa54599.jpg

6) I am a big literature fan and enjoyed seeing the text from the epic of Gilgamesh in the exhibit.  The earliest known writing as I understand is from this area and a lot of texts are in your exhibit.  What is the importance writing played in this civilization?

The development of writing remains one of the most fascinating topics associated with Mesopotamia. Writing develops elsewhere as well, but it is in Mesopotamia that we can see the full trajectory of how it all came about. The first writing on clay tablets around 3100 BC is not just a beginning, but also the end of a long development that originated millennia earlier. In Neolithic village economies, grain or other agricultural produce was stored communally. In order to reclaim what was rightfully theirs, farmers closed the opening of a jar or a bag of grain that had been strung up with a lump of clay, into which they impressed a stamp. Once the clay had dried out it was impossible to open the container without being noticed. The need to keep track, to account and be accountable only increased with the advent of the first cities. The development of a writing system that recorded information on clay made it possible to store information easily and efficiently. It is certainly no overstatement to say that this significant advance in information management gave Mesopotamian states an edge over its competitors.

The first scribes, therefore, were no poets, novelists or biographers--they were bureaucrats. And bureaucracy, ultimately, emerges due to the fact that we humans fundamentally do not trust each other. In this respect, nothing really has changed during the past 6000 years.

7) To expand, how many types of texts have we found and how much is represented in this exhibit.  Their religion was the first to be recorded but we also have texts of philosophy, city records, etc.  How much of their world can we put together because of these records and how confident are we to the accuracy of our studies?

The range of texts from Mesopotamia includes royal inscriptions, epics, encyclopedia, dictionaries, mathematical, astronomical, and medical, texts, omens, incantations, and legal documents. The greatest number of texts, of course, is economic in nature. Their sheer number (difficult to give any exact figure but clearly in the millions) gives us insights into ancient Mesopotamian society that simply are unprecedented elsewhere. For certain stretches of the Ur III period (2112-2004 BC), for example, we literally have some information for every single day. For our research, the question is less one of reliability but how to evaluate them. Texts authored by kings and rulers, for example, need to be taken with a grain of salt. As one of my teachers used to say: "The Assyrian army never lost a battle--they just 'won' some of them closer to home.... ." Back then as well as now, you couldn't believe everything that politicians were saying.

It's a different matter with economic documents--most of them are receipts or administrative accounts. These were internal records, not meant for public dissemination, and sometimes their data even could be considered as classified. Although we are flooded with economic data, we are facing two challenges. For once, their information was written for insiders, so sometimes the exact context of a transaction is difficult to understand. Second, most economic texts had a limited life span. A lot of daily records were transferred to summary accounts at the end of the month. Loan documents were destroyed after a debt was repaid. Most economic texts, therefore, were recycled--soaked in water in a recycling bin and turned back into tablet clay. This raises the question why certain texts did survive--was it by accident? Or did immanent doom--warfare or some other cataclysmic event, prevent their destruction. Whatever the reason, we need to exercise caution when compiling statistics. To quote a well-known colleague, "...the fact that a large number of loan documents is attested for a certain year doesn't mean that a lot of loans were signed during that year--it means that a large number of loans could not be repaid that year."

8) Besides writing, a lot of other recorded first are attributed to this area in such areas of mathematics, astronomy and architecture.  What factors contributed to the growth of this civilization and to all the innovations that arose here?

One of the reasons given for Mesopotamia's success is irrigation agriculture. Southern Mesopotamia is alluvial land, largely built of silt that was deposited by Euphrates and Tigris during annual flood seasons. It's fertile, but the absence of rainfall requires the creation of elaborate irrigation networks. Irrigation agriculture is not only labor-intensive but also requires the organization of large labor forces, leading to social stratification, division of labor, craft specialization and yes, ultimately to urbanism. Recent climate studies have shown that 6000 years ago, southern Mesopotamia had much more rainfall than today, so the impact of irrigation might have been overstated. The strategic position in which southern Mesopotamia is located--literally at the crossroad of numerous trade routes from and to Iran, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Turkey, Syria, the Mediterranean coast, and Egypt--might have facilitated the development of long distance trade networks and given this area an edge over its competitors. 

  Mesopotamia also suffers a disadvantage that actually might have contributed to its early development. As an alluvial land, it is devoid of numerous vital natural resources-- notably wood (especially timber), stone, and metal. The early foundation of trade colonies in Syria, Turkey, and western Iran as well as later military campaigns into these region testify to the great need to secure the procurement of these materials.

9) The Fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon hold the distinction of being the 1 major 7th Wonder of the World where we are not sure of the location.  That said, how can we be so sure they actually existed and being seemingly such a massive garden, do we have hopes of finding their location some day?

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are only known from descriptions provided by Greek writers. Some colleagues have recently claimed these to have been a mix-up with gardens at the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, where abundant evidence (archaeological and textual) has been found. I really don’t think, however, that there is any need to question the existence of massive royal gardens at Babylon. Anyone who has traveled through southern Iraq knows that gardens are not only essential economic resources (providing vital components of the diet such as vegetables, fruits and dates) but also provide a pleasant respite from the overpowering heat and dust during summer. One hundred years ago, Babylon's  German excavators identified the northeastern corner of king Nebuchadnezzar's Southern Palace as the place where the Hanging Gardens were located. Nowadays we can conclusively identify this area as a massive storage unit, so this location is out of the question. There are, however, more unidentified large mud brick constructions along the banks of the former Euphrates bed that could certainly have been foundations of a massive garden structure. Will we ever find the Hanging Gardens? Tough to tell—leaving aside the fact that garden installations on elevated platforms might have eroded away and hence be irretrievable, we have to anticipate that the Greek writers took some artistic license in their accounts. If we ever find these gardens we might not recognize them based on the descriptions that we have.

10) This civilization is separated into three empires, the Sumer, Assyrian and Babylonian.  What are the main differences and contributions of each empire in the importance of Mesopotamia?

 I must start this answer with a disclaimer. The labels “Sumer,” “Assyria,” and “Babylon” are popular for museum displays, but they really aren’t terribly helpful to understand or explain the development of civilization in Mesopotamia. To begin with, there was never a state or empire named “Sumer.” Lumped together under this heading is a time period between 4,000 and 2,000 BC, during which great strides were made—cities and first empires emerged, and writing was invented after 3000 BC. The political constellations during this time, however, change between city states, which often were at war with each other, and territorial empires that extent well past the Mesopotamian plain. Moreover, the only aspect that makes this time period “Sumerian” is the fact that most texts were written in that language. Major parts of the population, however, probably spoke Akkadian--a Semitic language that later on was written and spoken in various dialects in Babylonian and Assyria. Archaeologists, accordingly, divide the time between 4000 and 2000 BC into five major periods that either reflect clear changes in settlement patterns or in the nature and appearance of artifacts but generally avoid the term “Sumerian” to describe any of its artwork and material culture.

 Babylonia and Assyria, by contrast, do represent territorial states, and they do overlap chronologically. But again, it would be misleading to talk about “monolithic” states. King Hammurapi, for example, a Babylonian ruler best known for the law code named after him, ruled between 1792 and 1750 BC. His titles, traditions and material culture are very close to those of the kings of Sumer and Akkad that ruled Mesopotamia before 2000 BC. He probably would have found few if any commonalities with Nebuchadnezzar II, the Babylonian king who famously built the Ishtar Gate and the ziqqurat of Babylon (well known from the Biblical account as the “Tower of Babel”) after 600 BC. Between Hammurapi and Nebuchadnezzar was more than a millennium, during which Babylon was weak and sometimes even subordinate to its northern neighbor Assyria.

Assyria is an interesting case as well. Until about 1350 BC it remains a relatively minor city-state but then rapidly rises to power, at its peak (ca. 670 BC) dominating the world between Egypt, Turkey, the Caucasus region, and Iran. It is tempting to see a dichotomy between Babylonia as a center of learning and science and Assyria as a brutal military machine that trampled upon everyone. This view, however, ignores the fact that some of the finest artworks from Mesopotamia—elaborate wall reliefs with extensive narratives carved in stone—were found in Assyrian palaces. Assyria was also home to the library of king Ashurbanipal, which housed copies of many stories (such as the Gilgamesh Epic) but also medical, mathematical, astronomic, or lexical texts. Without these discoveries in Assyria, ironically, we would know a lot less about Babylonia.

The answer to your question, therefore, is more complex that so simply look at commonalities and differences between these cultures. The worlds of Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria were not static, each evolving distinctively during the time periods highlighted in the exhibit.

Royal Ontarion Museum - Assyria photo MesopotamiaAssyriaROM2013_13452_30_zpsf7e63297.jpg

11) Besides the text of Gilgamesh, I think my favorite piece is the dying lion relief.  Do you have a favorite piece in the exhibit?

Nothing against the dying lion, which is a beautiful piece, but there are many other highlights in the exhibit. Perhaps the most iconic piece on display right now is a little statuette of a rearing goat made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, shell, copper and carnelian. Found at the Royal Cemetery of Ur, dating to about 2400 BC and on loan from the University Museum in Philadelphia it's probably the most famous piece from ancient Iraq in North America. It will be exchanged in mid-October for another iconic piece (the so-called Great Lyre from Ur, a musical instrument with magnificent inlays), so come and see it soon. There are, of course, many other famous and intriguing pieces: a 7-8' Assyrian battle scene carved in stone reliefs hat is as haunting for its depiction of violence in warfare as it is artistically superb; lion hunt scenes on large reliefs that show the preparations for the hunt, the killing of the lions and the aftermath in graphic detail; numerous more pieces--including jewelry and gold vessels--from the Royal Cemetery of Ur; a delicately carved statue from a temple dating to ca. 2400 BC; or intricate ivory sculptures and reliefs from Assyrian palaces could be added to this lists. Don't forget about "your" own Gudea statue (from the DIA), which definitely is an exhibit highlight. One item that we are particularly proud of is "our" own terracotta lion from Babylon, a painted and glazed terracotta relief from the palace of king Nebuchadnezzar. Just looking at what I have to call a perfect display, this lion relates well what a magnificent city that Babylon once was.

Finally, one of the pieces of the exhibit of which I am most proud is a 3D flight through ancient Babylon, showing many of the city’s highlights such as the Ishtar Gate, the palace, the ziqqurat (temple tower) of Babylon—rendered in the Bible as the Tower of Babel—and a great view of its residential quarters. Save for the Hanging Gardens, which we added with some artistic license, everything that you see in this animation is based on plans and photographs from the German excavations and recent satellite imagery.

12) There are a number of talks related to the exhibit coming up the next couple of months.  Is there one true stand out on the list for someone coming from out of town to see?

Since I invited most of the speakers it would be tough to single one out. For an out-of-towner, perhaps try the October 10 lecture on the Royal Cemetery of Ur by Richard Zettler from the University of Pennsylvania. Zettler will address the story of the massive number of royal servants that were found buried along their kings in this cemetery, using results of recent CT scans of surviving bodies. Beautifully adorned with jewelry or attired in military uniform, the excavator had argued that they had followed their leaders willingly into the afterlife. I won't give away more, but let’s just say that Zettler's new findings are both intriguing and unsettling....

13) Anything else I didn't touch upon that you would like to make sure gets mentioned about this exhibit or another one happening at the ROM?

Mainly, come and see the exhibit—you will be surprised how much you will like it! And don't forget to visit "Catastrophe", the companion exhibit to “Mesopotamia” that is included in the admission fee to the museum. It was developed by experts at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute exhibit to address many of the unanswered questions regarding the looting of the Iraq Museum and of archaeological sites in Iraq. A challenging topic indeed, but helping to make our “Mesopotamia” exhibit all the more relevant to the present-day world of the modern Middle East.

So if you get an opportunity to get to Toronto, you will want to check out this exhibit. Go to for more info about pricing, lectures and other exhibits and you will not be disappointed.

If music is your thing, here are some shows for your enjoyment. Say hi to Lynn for me at the Pet Shop Boys show:

Tuesday (9/24) - Widespread Panic @ The Fillmore

Friday (9/27) - Pet Shop Boys @ Caesars Windsor, Sarah Brightman @ Fox Theatre

Saturday (9/28) - Cold war Kids @ St Andrews Hall

Sunday (9/29) - Phoenix @ EMU Convocation Center (Ypsilanti)